JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia eased into its first commuter day with women on the roads without a hitch on Sunday.
It was a historic day of celebration as police gave female drivers flowers, hotels offered rooms and meals to the first women to arrive driving their cars, cafes served them free coffee, while the Ministry of Transport greeted them with a billboard that read “Dear sister, we wish you safety always.”
Many women were seen driving to their offices on Sunday morning, while a few were driving on the outskirts of Riyadh to acclimatize themselves with the environment before they hit the roads.
“As of 12am, the implementation of the Supreme Court order to enable women to drive and the implementation of traffic regulations to both men and women is officially in effect,” said Col. Sami Al-Shwairkh, the official spokesman for General Security in the Kingdom.
“The security and traffic status on all roads and areas around the Kingdom have been reported as normal. There have not been any records from our monitoring of any unusual occurrences on the road throughout the Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, businesses such as spas, cafés, hotels and restaurants were offering something in return for Saudi women showing their licenses.
The ladies-only spa at Jeddah’s Park Hyatt Hotel, Evania Spa, was giving free access to the first three women who show up to it with a 30-minute massage as part of the day’s celebrations.
Restaurants such as Punjab Grill, Rosso and Rai in Jeddah were offering free lunch or dinner to every female that arrived in her own vehicle and showing her driver’s license.
Hotels such as the Narcissus in Riyadh and Sheraton Damman were also celebrating women driving by offering a free night’s stay and dinners at their top restaurants for the first women to arrive in their own cars.
Women enthusiastically and wholeheartedly cheered on their fellow female drivers, beginning after midnight, packing Jeddah’s Corniche in the middle of the night and then into the day.
Saudi Shoura Council member Lina Almaeena was among the very first women to drive in the Kingdom as soon as the clock struck midnight. “I feel proud, I feel dignified and I feel liberated,” she said.
Almaeena told Arab News that the event was changing her life by “facilitating it, making it more comfortable, making it more pleasant, and making it more stress-free.”
She urged all drivers to follow the traffic and road safety rules. “What’s making me anxious is the misconduct of a lot of the drivers, the male drivers. Unfortunately, they’re not as disciplined as they should be. Simple things such as changing lanes and using your signals — this is making me anxious.”
And this isn’t because Almaeena doesn’t know what she’s doing. “I’m confident: I’ve driven all around the world when I travel, especially when I’m familiar with the area. It’s really mainly how to be a defensive driver because you have to be.”
On how society is adapting to this major change, Almaeena said: “Tomorrow is the first day, mentally and psychologically, it already had that shift. As I mentioned, it’s a paradigm shift. In perception and how they view women, their capabilities — as equal partners.
“Mentally, it’s already there, and physically we will see, as we start, more and more encouragement for both men and women. Even some of the women who weren’t feeling comfortable about driving, it’s going to be encouraging for them, in a live demonstration and evidence that women can do it.”
Dr. Soha Tashkandi, chairperson of clinical pathology in Riyadh’s King Fahad Medical City, also got into her car just after midnight but was back out in the day. “When the clock struck 12am on Sunday, June 24, I drove in my country for the first time,” she said. “It was a memorable night, not only because I took to the wheel in Saudi, but because my 18-year-old daughter was alongside me. She also had the chance to drive.”
She and her daughter were some of the first ladies to register for a license, and her husband supported them all the way.
Tashkandi, with her husband Dr Ismael Baksh in the back seat, took an Arab News reporter for a spin yesterday. When Baksh was asked how he feels sitting in the back seat, he replied: “Finally, I can relax”.
Tashkandi praised the Saudi Driving School (SDS) as a positive experience that was full of ease. Nothing could stop them from getting their licenses, she said. “The SDS team were highly professional and helpful accommodating my training schedule according to my long working hours. Part of the training was during the holy month of Ramadan, but this did not stop me or my daughter from taking the full 30-hour training.”
As she made a right turn, Tashkandi said: “Whether at home or working as an individual, Saudi women have always been supported by their male peers. Today, we all celebrate together.
“This historic decision will positively impact not only the lives of individuals but also on the future of businesses within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”